Moldova and the media: Why track human trafficking?


Over the past decade, myriad reports about human trafficking from or through Moldova have appeared in European and US media. The articles are often sensationalist; they obscure the issue or tarnish the image of entire countries – as well as the mainstream media’s reputation in general.


“Moldovan women kept as sex slaves in London win £600,000 compensation,” reads a headline in the UK’s The Independent this February. The related article reported on four Moldovan women in London who were forced to have sex with up to 40 men every day and to work 20 hour ‘shifts’.
The story is no doubt newsworthy. Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery, the Council of Europe says.

But why is Moldova singled out? A former Soviet republic landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, it is the poorest country in Europe. Because of its dire economic conditions, many people are desperate to improve their living conditions. They become easy prey for traffickers.

Moldova is therefore a source of trafficking, and, to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country. Women and girls are trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Men are also trafficked, for the purpose of forced labour.

The financial crisis has exacerbated the situation. In 2009, new warnings were issued by anti-trafficking groups. They say that “rising unemployment leads to greater trafficking” and the “global financial crisis could push more migrants into the hands of people traffickers as they seek better lives abroad.” 

Where are the watchdogs?

Moldova is listed as a “Tier 2 Watch List” country in the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report. Its government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, the report says.

Moldova has made a slight improvement over last year’s rankings, moving up from its worst ranking, in 2008: the 3rd Tier, a group of 13 other non-compliant states.   

In 2008 alone, some 25,000 Moldovan victims were trafficked into forced labour, the report says. Girls and young women are trafficked from rural areas in Moldova to the capital, Chisinau. Then they are “moved on” to Russia, Turkey, Cyprus or the United Arab Emirates. Children are also trafficked, for forced labour and begging in neighbouring countries. Men are also trafficked into the construction, agriculture, and service sectors of Russia.

In addition, the small breakaway region of Transnistria, in eastern Moldova, is beyond the control of the central government. It remains a significant source and transit area for trafficking in persons, according to the report.

Awareness is the key to preventing human trafficking, activists say. The more people are informed of the dangers, especially women, the more likely they are to be safe. So where do the media stand on human trafficking? Dos the press promote awareness on the dangers of human trafficking or merely run lurid headlines to boost sales?   

What role for the media?

Local, national and international media outlets do little original reporting on trafficking in persons in Moldova. The press generally report on human trafficking only for topical stories. Little follow-up reporting is done after initial reports are published, if any is done at all. Coverage is mostly done ad hoc and in sensationalistic fashion.

A 2007 survey commissioned by The International Center for Women Rights Protection and Promotion “La Strada”, found that 52 percent of the population in Moldova was well informed about human trafficking. Respondents said they had heard of the phenomenon, but knew little of its essence; a large number linked it only with prostitution. Another survey, commissioned by La Strada revealed that the main information sources on human trafficking are TV adverts, followed by documentaries.   

Human trafficking awareness campaigns are more likely to reach the target audience if they carry a simple and memorable message. The problem, however, is that the press gets involved only as informational partners of governmental institutions, be they local or international NGOs. Very little original news is published along side these campaigns. Many Moldovans still remember the 2001 awareness campaign “You are not for trade” (“Tu nu eşti marfă!”), developed by the International Organization for Migration and supported by La Strada at a time when illegal migration became a widespread issue for the country. La Strada employees recall that the campaign had a great impact on the population. 

But the media’s patchy reporting on the issue remains a problem. 

Some argue that it is not the role of the press to educate people. But in a world where it is believed that at any one time some 2.5 million people are victims of trafficking (the biggest source of criminal earnings after arms and drugs) the press – at least public broadcasters – should bear some responsibility for informing the public.

Video adverts on human trafficking (Spot 1and spot 2) air on Moldovan TV Channels as part of the awareness campaign “The vulnerability of migrants, particularly women, to exploitation and human trafficking.”

La Strada produced the adverts, which depict the fate of a typical migrant in search of a better life: a young woman leaves her children and parents behind to go abroad with the promise of work. The organisers say their goal is to work with the media to go beyond the traditional informational partnership. They are trying to enlist profound commitment of journalists “in a broader and deeper reflection of the phenomenon, its causes and consequences, including the identification and combination of efforts to eradicate the scourge of human trafficking.”

Indeed, the press corps does enter the field as educator on reporting on human trafficking in Moldova. An extensive journalistic analysis of human trafficking issue in Moldova was conducted by the New Yorker in 2008.

In general, though, a lack of investigative reporting exists alongside poor standards and social advertisements that are not widely spread because of various factors (not clearly regulated, no financial sustainability, etc.). 

Media deceit

Western media outlets are keen on reporting stories on human trafficking in Eastern Europe. News coverage is often biased and sensationalist. It is not the result of deep and objective study. Nor does it seek promote awareness of the phenomenon.       

Recently, the American edition of Marie Claire magazine listed Moldova as one of the worst places on Earth for women. The edition grossly exaggerated figures; it cited “750,000 Moldovan prostitutes working abroad”

In an attempt to grab headlines, the American magazine tried to sway public opinion in its October, 2008 issue with the article “The Worst Places on Earth for Women”. It quoted an unverified sensationalist figure of three quarters of a million Moldovan women being prostituted abroad and labelled: “Moldova – a sex-trafficking superstore”.

The figure is completely fictitious. 

Official data compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics of Moldova, indicates that the total number of Moldovan migrants abroad was some 400,000 citizens at the end of 2005, with the majority located in Russia (some 59 percent). Most of these people were men employed in construction.

No precise figures for Moldovan migration are kept; therefore the estimates vary radically with unofficial statistics rising up to a total of 800,000 migrants. The estimated number of trafficked people in 2008 is about 25,000. No statistics are available on the number of prostitutes originating from Moldova.

To assume that every migrant abroad is a prostitute shows exceeding ignorance, and the consequences are highly regrettable.   

The Marie Claire story highlights media sensationalism and the damage that can be done to a country and its citizens. The comments from Moldovan women on the Marie Claire page describe the great offence perpetrated by the author, editorial assistant Jihan Thompson. What’s more, the author didn’t even know exact location of Moldova, pointing instead to Romania on the map.  Many readers tend to honestly believe the mission of Marie Claire. It presents itself as a women’s magazine full of integrity. The blog entryof a public health student who read the article demonstrates how easily readers are drawn in. 

Only after a deluge of complaints did Marie Claire editors remove the online article; the harm had already been done. Meanwhile, UNIMEDIA, the Moldovan online news portal, alerted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which flagged this case to the Moldovan embassy in the US for further investigation.

This case study of the media’s role emphasises the need for the Moldovan press to be aware of human trafficking reporting. Moldovan reporters must take the lead when it comes to increasing both the awareness of trafficking in persons for its citizens and for providing accurate information to the outside world. 

Media - a voice only for advertisers

The popular Moldovan newspaper “Makler” is distributed nationally and considered to be an unprecedented source with provocative ads. “La Strada” prepared a qualitative report regarding a specific category of advertisements published in “Makler” during the period between January and June, 2008 and discovered that all the advertisements promise a fabulous life, a chance to gain economical stability, a decent salary and a large degree of independence to people who are looking abroad for a more decent life. 

La Strada’s assessment found that in slightly more than six months, 38 percent of all ads offered jobs abroad. These included jobs as dancers in nightclubs in Thailand, Tunisia, Japan, etc., aimed specifically at young ladies seeking a chance to earn large amounts of money. The paper also carried ads seeking opticians and dentists for United Arab Emirates and Italy, as well as the ads looking for specialists in the food industry in Poland, Czech Republic and Great Britain. 

A separate category of ads is related to marriage offers (6 percent). Offers for study abroad or au pair jobs (5 percent) were aimed at young people. La Strada warns that travelling abroad through the au pair system could be risky, as the programme is not regulated in Moldova. 

La Strada’s evaluation, which covered six issues of the newspaper, examined 1,198 ads on topics such as tourism, job offers, documents arrangements, marriage offers, emigration, studies, etc. It reveals that people accept these job offers because they are enthusiastic about future “prospects.” More often than not, they fail to check the information contained in the ads. 

Reporting roles and human lives

The examples cited in this article illustrate the mainstream media coverage of human trafficking in Moldova. On the whole, the press favours sensationalism over education. It conducts little informative or investigative journalism. This applies both to national and international media products that cover the issue. As a result, Moldova is being exaggeratedly perceived as a trafficking hub.     

Journalists always have a choice to make when reflecting on human trafficking. The case of Moldova vividly demonstrates this. Reporters can choose to play the role of educator, deceiver or negotiator. Their decision may well impact the fate of many human lives.